Liberty at the Conservative Party Conference
Despite a blond, Olympotastic and re-elected rival, last night’s turnout at Liberty’s Tory fringe was excellent. Introducing the fringe panel, Shami reminded the crowd of the many principled stands taken by the Tories in Opposition - on 90 days pre-charge detention, ID cards, innocents’ DNA retention and more. But it’s important to remember those values in Government, she urged: “Because no matter who you vote for it’s the Government that gets in”. In a thinly-veiled reference to the campaign by the Security Services for audacious secret courts and State snooping, Shami reminded the room that governing is a complicated matter with pressures coming from all sides.
The Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, was first to his feet and reeled off a proud litany of Government achievements for civil liberties. He seemed proudest about the repeal of section 44 - stop and search without suspicion: “The number of people stopped and searched has collapsed and there is no evidence that we are any less safe. I’m really proud of that”. Cue – large applause. In a staunch defence of the Rule of Law, the AG said he purred with delight whenever terrorism suspects were dealt with by criminal charges brought shortly after an arrest is made. On secret courts he accepted that he was “uncomfortable” with Closed Material Procedures but thought there was a problem with the status quo. “Surely the best way to avoid large payouts is to refuse to be involved in rendition and torture?” Shami suggested, and the AG seconded her “150 per cent”.
Member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Nicola Blackwood MP, was next. One of the “sensibles”, she said that apart from rebelling on Lords’ reform she has been a loyal backbencher - but she has real concerns about the Justice & Security Bill. Noting that it was not just Liberty and the human rights mafia who were raising the alarm, she said that “we should all sit up and listen when the Special Advocates have concerns”. To hearty applause she said “the Government shouldn’t be having private conversations with judges to make cases go away”. On extradition she was firm: “We need the forum amendment and more discretion for judges”.
Jesse Norman MP, leader of the most successful Conservative rebellion under the Coalition, is an old friend of Liberty and co-author of Churchill’s Legacy: The Conservative Case for the Human Rights Act. He started by celebrating the Government’s civil liberties victories. “But,” he warned, “in upcoming legislation we are treading on some sensitive areas. The Rule of Law is our closest thing to a secular religion… and our country has a reputation as a beacon of tolerance because of the Rule of Law”. Getting straight to the heart of the problem with the Justice & Security Bill, he said that information could not be withheld from one side and still be considered "evidence". He was also concerned about the Draft Communications Data Bill and the potential there for abuse. On the “British Bill of Rights” he asked, “how would it relate to the ECHR?”. His stance was clear, logical and compelling: “I don't want us to remove ourselves from the ECHR. It is our great contribution to the Rule of Law.”
Introducing Peter Oborne, chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph, Shami recalled his commitment to human rights and the Rule of Law both at home and abroad. Peter started with praise for the eloquence of the other speakers but, to laughter, noted that on secret courts the AG may be eloquent but he was wrong. “I've been a journo for twenty years," he said. "I don't believe the stuff the Security Services say. It’s extraordinary to suggest that they should have a privileged relationship with a judge. I am very disappointed with the Justice & Security Bill. This Government has been pathetic on that issue.”
His analysis of the new Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, was sharp and (in light of today’s developments) prophetic – “I don’t think he understands the Rule of Law”. He was similarly scathing of the Home Secretary’s grasp of constitutional principles and referenced her “bizarre comments about the HRA at last year’s conference”. ”Sadly being right wing on law and order is the new norm,” he observed. “Those politicians that stand up on these issues are courageous and I respect the fact that the AG and two rising backbenchers are here at Liberty’s fringe”.
Questions from the floor revealed delegates’ grave concerns about summary extradition, State snooping proposals and secret courts. If today’s Daily Telegraph report of the Tories backing withdrawal from the ECHR at the next election is accurate, then those concerns should include the very future of Churchill’s post-war vision.